Rolling Thunder (Peter Flynn, 1977) is probably more well known for being one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films, so much so that he named his short lived film rerelease label after it. Considering the large fan base Tarantino covets it is some what of a surprise that Rolling Thunder has not been awarded a DVD release in the US or the UK. An online petition started by fans on the film was even produced to try convince MGM that it was worthy of a DVD release. Unfortunately, nothing came of this. With MGM’s bankruptcy, the film seemed destined to remain unreleased on DVD.
Several years ago, after years of searching for the film, I managed to obtain a DVD recording of an American HDTV broadcast of the film. Though I enjoyed the film, after my first viewing I did feel that it did not live up to its hype of being one of the best films in the revenge sub genre. But, the film stayed with me. Upon my second viewing I enjoyed it even more. This started a mini-obsession with the film that resulted in me producing a fan DVD that used a higher quality rip of the American HDTV broadcast for the video and included the original theatrical trailer as an extra (pictured below). Considering the sources used I was very impressed with the results.
So, what makes Rolling Thunder so appealing? John Flynn’s tight direction of an excellent Paul Schrader script is one reason. The other is the performance of William Devane as Major Charles Rane. Devane has been typecast as the archetypal American senator in shows like 24 and other Hollywood fare. Here, he plays the mentally scarred Vietnam veteran to perfection. His memories of torture in the POW camp and how he learned to ‘love the rope’ through to his quest for vengeance demonstrate an intensity that he has not been given opportunity to show in other films. Then there is the performance of Tommy Lee Jones as Rane’s fellow POW camp detainee Johnny Vohden. Like Rane he has struggled to return to normal everyday life, jumping at the chance to join Rane on his revenge mission.
Prior to late 2010, the only official DVD release of the film could be found in Spain on the Filmax label. Unfortunately, this release was of very poor quality and not presented in anamorphic widescreen. Surprisingly, MGM announced that Rolling Thunder would be released on DVD on the 2/2/11 but only on made-to-order DVD-R, finally answering the request of many cult film fans. In early January of this year, I noticed that the Sky channel MGMHD was premiering Rolling Thunder during the month of January. I was tempted to subscribe to the channel to see the film in HD but Sky’s difficult cancellation process deterred me. On a side note, MGMHD does seem to be good value. For around £5 a month, a number of quality cult films, such as F/X Murder By Illusion (Robert Mandel, 1986) and The Abominable Dr Phibes (Robert Fuest, 1971), are broadcast in HD. Many of these are not available on Blu-Ray or even on DVD. This might be the only way to see such fare from the MGM back catalogue in HD for the forseeable future. Now, back to Rolling Thunder. A few weeks ago, while searching Google to find out wether the MGM made-to-order DVD was available to order, I came across a Spanish DVD site that apparently had a new DVD release of the the film for sale on the MGM label. Further searches found a review of the DVD with screenshots, confirming that this was an anamorphic widescreen release. I quickly ordered the DVD from the reliable Spanish DVD etailer DVDGo. Their shipping costs may be high but their shipping speed is impeccable; it takes less than 24 hours for the films to arrive in the UK once they have been dispatched.
The new Spanish DVD contains two edits of the film: the original theatrical version and the Spanish edit. The latter edit titles the film El expreso de Corea, which roughly translates in English to The Former Prison of Korea. Yes, for some reason the Korean war replaces the Vietnam war in this version. I have no idea why this might be. The DVD appears to use the same HD master as the one used for television broadcast. It has not been given extensive remastering and is very grain heavy. This is particularly noticeable when upscaling the DVD to HD. However, this suits the gritty nature of the film. It would be safe to assume that MGM will use the exact same master for their upcoming made to manufacture release. The Spanish DVD is therefore the best option as it is factory pressed and not burned on DVD-R media. Screenshots from the Spanish DVD can be found below and are compared to screenshots taken from my fan DVD (Spanish DVD on the left, fan DVD on right). The Spanish DVD clearly has more detail than my fan DVD, this is most likely due to the MPEG-2 compression of the fan DVD.
Whilst it is unfortunate that cult films such as Rolling Thunder will not doubt be resigned to substandard DVD releases it is good to see them still appear for sale. I continue to hope that one day a company such as Synapse, or maybe Criterion (yeah, right), will give the film the attention it deserves: a fully remastered Blu-Ray release complete with Paul Schrader interview and commentary track, the obligatory Tarantino interview and commentary track and interview with William Devane. We can but hope.On a closing note, fans of the film may wish to seek out the little known actioner The Park is Mine (Steven Hilliard Stern, 1986) which would serve as an inferior unofficial sequel to Rolling Thunder. In this film, Tommy Lee Jones again plays a marginalised Vietnam veteran who fulfils a war buddies dying wish of taking over Central Park. It is certainly not as gritty or as good as Rolling Thunder but is certainly worthy of a viewing. As for locating it, Google is your friend.